Soul Stirring: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the South

Sam Doyle “Baseball Batter” house paint on metal, Gordon W. Bailey Collection

We should all know about the California African-American Museum of Art. It’s located in the vast complex down near USC that also houses the California ScienCenter, the Museum of Natural History, the IMAX Theater and the Coliseum. You can pay 10 bucks to park but I like to troll the side streets east of Fig, park for free, and have a bit of a stroll first through the ’hood. How are we to love one another if we’re not curious about how the other lives?

The first thing to catch my eye upon walking into the exhibit “Soul Stirring: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the South” (through June 8) was a series of stunning quotes, painted in black on a white wall.

From Nellie Mae Rowe: “God gave me my own power. He didn’t put everybody here to do the same thing.” From Purvis Young: “I paint from reality. I paint the problems of the world. And something I get into myself and cry. I’m the artist. It’s not up to me to solve the world’s problems.”

The second thing was a display case featuring the upturned cover of an enamel cooking pot, smeared with paint, utilized by one of the artists as a palette. That’s when I knew I’d hit pay dirt.

The Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, herself a Southerner, observed, “[T]o the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

She was speaking of her stories, but she could just as well have been referring to the works in “Soul Stirring.” The themes of temptation, sin, redemption, and death trumpet forth from every wall. The elements are fire, water and blood. The characters include pimps, prostitutes, billy club-wielding cops, and backwoods preachers.

Herbert Singleton (1945-2007), a New Orleans artist, carved his first bas relief on a chifferobe panel. With their saturated primary colors, hulking prophets and perdition-or-salvation warnings, his works grab by the throat.

“Whoso Ever Causeth a Man to Go Astray In An Evil Way Shall Himself Fall Into His Own Pit” reads one caption, and another, “Hell is Deep and Hot.” “Heaven Help Us” depicts a jazz funeral, complete with gold casket and sax-playing pallbearer; “Come Out of Her,” an exorcism; and “Ain’t Goin’ Back,” a sorrowful act of racial violence.

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), a Georgia native, experienced a burst of creative energy in her 50s. Using crayons and felt-tip pens, she began drawing biographical narratives peopled by whimsical phantasmagorical creatures: snakes, lambs, parrots, cats with cloven hooves, and horned pigs.

Roy Ferdinand (1959-2004) used poster board, pens and colored markers to portray the people in the New Orleans neighborhoods where he lived. His work is alive with violence, sex, injustice, rage, pride and a deep humanity.

Clementine Hunter (1886 or ’87-1988), a Louisiana artist, began painting in her mid-50’s using cast-off materials from the guests at the artist’s-retreat plantation where she worked. “Cotton Crucifixion” (1970) features a cornrowed black Christ on a white cross. “Baptism,” “Wash Day,” “Fishing” and “The Watermelon Party” celebrate the quiet grace, and quiet suffering, of everyday life.

Purvis Young (1943-2010), from the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, was inspired by the protest art of the 60s. Using salvaged materials, he first achieved recognition for his painted murals. His dreamy urban landscapes have been compared to sophisticated finger-painting, and Young went on to produce a prodigious body of work and to become a well-known success in the art world. 

Leroy Almon (1938-1997) apprenticed under master woodcarver Elijah Pierce before returning to his native Georgia. His wonderful bas relief “Devil-Fishing” (1992) has Lucifer dangling a rod laden with lures: dice, playing cards, a prostitute in a red dress, liquor, drugs, cigarettes and a bag with a dollar sign on it. You can try to fancy temptation up, but with the possible exception of the lust for fame (I betray myself) that about covers it. Down below the humans raise their hands in supplication: “Let us have it! We’ll happily sell our souls! Give us more!” Again, I rest my case.

Sam Doyle (1906-1985), born in the low country of South Carolina and inspired by fervent faith, was moved to paint the history of his beloved Gullah community.

Doyle once used a refrigerator door as a canvas and, surveying his exuberant work, you can almost picture him hacking out giant pieces of corrugated tin, wrestling them to the ground, and with wall paint and brush in hand, hurling onto them the full force of his irrepressible spirit.

“Absolute attention is prayer,” held the French intellectual Simone Weil, and Doyle’s work compels an undistracted gaze. “Baseball Batter” (1970s) is all tension, kinetic waiting and a solitary man with a bat: no field, no stands, no team. “Doctor Buz” (1982-85) depicts a vital jaunty fellow — “Ha Lo!” he exclaims — in big red pants, a white shirt, dainty black shoes, and an actual two-tone conch shell emerging from his forehead. (Doctor Buz was apparently a Gullah root doctor who communicated with the spirits through a sea shell. If you’re not able to catch “Soul-Stirring,” an exhibit of Doyle’s work will run from May 3 to Aug. 17 in LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building).

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) was a New Orleans-based preacher, prophet, and Gospel singer who heard several calls from God. Using cardboard, shoe polish, toilet paper rolls, acrylic paint and ballpoint pen, she created works such as “God’s Greatest Hits” and “Let There Be Light.”

In “The Greater New Jerusalem,” a many-roomed mansion is peopled with smiling children, some black, some white. Legions of red-haired angels guard the roofline, and the focal point is a wedding tableau at bottom right: Sister Gertrude herself, demure in bridal veil and gown, and a chubby Caucasian Jesus who bears a startling resemblance to the soul singer Little Richard.

These artists may have been self-taught but their work conveys what no mere higher education can impart: that the world is a battleground between good and evil; that we will be called on the last day to give an account of our lives; that the urge to paint or carve or draw is a mystery and a gift.    

As Sister Gertrude observed, “He moves my hand. Do you think I would ever know how to do a picture like this by myself?”

“Soul Stirring: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the South” runs through June 8 at the California African-American Museum of Art, 600 State Dr., Los Angeles; (213) 744-7432.


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Our timidity in the face of God's abundance

Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

My youth had both its strengths and its weaknesses. I grew up on a farm in heart of the Canadian prairies, a second-generation immigrant. Our family was a large one and the small farm we lived on gave us enough to live on, though just enough. There were never any extras.

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